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Whatever happened to Penguin?

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This week it was announced that U.S. officials have filed a lawsuit against Penguin Random House to block its proposed takeover of Simon & Schuster. “The merger would give Penguin Random House outsized influence over who and what is published, and how much authors are paid for their work”. Penguin currently publishes 15,000 titles a year and has 95 imprints (including Vintage, Viking Press, and Everyman Library). They suggest that this merger would give Penguin a monopsony: in other words, Penguin would become the market’s dominant buyer. What’s threatening about this is that we’ve spent so long worrying about the damaging effects of e-books, the Kindle, and Amazon for publishers and book shops that this comes as rather a surprise. 

The whole situation is sad when you consider Penguin’s origins. In 1935, Penguin founder Allen Lane was disappointed at the dearth of affordable, well-written paperbacks in a newsagent at Exeter railway station. Their first range of paperbacks — including novels by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie — were sold at sixpence, the same cost as a pack of fags. Penguin’s enduring legacy will be that it democratised great literature, both fiction and non-fiction, making it more accessible to an increasingly literate population. It is an unavoidable fact that Penguin books have had a significant influence on the culture, history, and politics of Britain in the last hundred years. 

Perhaps the most important moment in Penguin’s history was the 1946 publication of E.V. Rieu’s translation of the Odyssey. This marked the beginning of ‘Penguin Classics’: the series for which they are now most known. But the ‘Classics’ series has expanded, inevitably, and has begun to lose its meaning: inexpensive, selected Classics. In effect, the elusive search for a definitive canon — alongside the modern world’s effective rejection of that word itself — has rendered the idea behind ‘Penguin Classics’ almost meaningless. Look at their catalogue: what once could have defined the word ‘classic’ is absolutely saturated — even the naivest of English students, fed on the idea of a definite canon, would not search for a definition or a list from Penguin. 

But perhaps the dramatic turn from their original mission is best seen in their choice of aesthetic. Do you remember the old Penguins? Those two blocks of faded orange, divided by a central band of tobacco-stained white, that lurk on your parents’ bookshelves, so thumb-marked and rugose that the pages barely stick to the spine. Their size, too, is wonderful: they can fit in one hand when you read, and they can fit in your pocket when you don’t. They’re economical in their use of thin paper and small fonts. But, alas, not anymore! Now they’re clad in a mournful and sober black and you must hold them with two hands, otherwise their stiff spines will make the pages shut together. One thing is certain: they’re different books. 

But most of all, it’s the cost. £10 for a paperback is not affordable for the vast majority of the population: and wasn’t that their mission? People can read online, they can go to libraries, they can buy second-hand — but nothing quite compares to the sense of truly owning a book, of being able to scribble stupid comments in the margins and underline beautiful phrases and recondite thoughts. There’s Wordsworth Classics: they’re cheap, and clearly designed to plug the gap in the market left by Penguin’s rising prices. But they’re not very nice books … Well, a Penguin Classic remains cheaper than a pack of fags — but, then again, a pack of Camel Blues at Sainsbury’s costs £13.40.

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